Between Fact and Fantasty: The Artistic Imagination in Print

February 6 through July 27, 2014
Ripin Print Gallery

During the spring 2014 semester, Ripin Gallery will be filled with images of the imaginary, the unreal, and the fantastical. In response to the Allen’s theme of Realism this year, over 140 woodblock prints, engravings, etchings, lithographs and mezzotints from the AMAM’s collection are brought together in an attempt to answer the question: how did artists depict something they did not observe? Prior to the commonplace use of abstraction and photography, artists used imaginative interpretations of traditional forms to portray miracles, mythological figures and creatures, visions, abstract concepts, and places and historical events they did not witness. Although they often framed their musings within established iconography and modes of representation, they frequently used those moorings as a point of departure, creating something entirely new.

European and American prints from the 15th to the 20th centuries are organized into thematic categories exploring subjects that demanded or invited the artist’s imagination. The section “Fact and Fiction” investigates the varying degree of truth in artists’ illustrations of historical events and the natural world, such as Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut of a rhinoceros he never saw in the flesh, or Käthe Kollwitz’s Bauernkrieg series of 1901-1908 depicting a sixteenth-century peasant revolt so realistically that it seems to have occurred before her eyes. In “Places Real and Imagined,” landscape imagery ranges from the completely fabricated, such as capricci by the eighteenth-century Venetians Canaletto and Giovanni Battista Piranesi and the fantastical Biblical narratives by the Romantic artist John Martin, to the unfamiliar interpretations of known places, like Rome or London, by the likes of James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his nineteenth-century contemporaries. “Visions and Miracles” and “Gods and Heroes” show the myriad figural types and narrative scenes artists have used to tell stories of the mystical and the supernatural.  Mythological figures take on superhuman appearances, as in Hendrick Goltzius’s depiction of the god Pluto as a muscular giant. Miraculous events and visions are portrayed as both unearthly, as in Dürer’s woodcut of Saint John Devouring the Book from the Apocalypse series,  and firmly rooted in the human context, as in Rembrandt’s extraordinary etching of Christ Healing of the Sick.  

Perhaps the most fascinating prints in the exhibition are those that address the role of the artistic imagination itself. From allegories on beauty, love, and genius to displays of whimsy, fantasy, and the mysterious, the section on “The Artistic Imagination” presents a wide array of images representing the workings of the inventive mind. One of the most famous is Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes’s Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, from his landmark album of aquatints, Los Caprichos.  Asleep at his work table, the artist—identifiable by the etching tools at his side—dreams of swarming nocturnal creatures, signifying ignorance, evil, and deceit. In his original publication of this print, Goya provided this explanation: “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.” Although Goya intended the image to be a commentary on the follies of society, it also locates imagination at the heart of the creative process.  To explore it can be both terrifying and exhilarating.

This exhibition is organized by Curator of European and American Art Andaleeb Banta, with support from Curatorial Assistant Emma Kimmel (OC '15).

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746–1828)
Los Caprichos [sixth edition], 1799
Etching and aquatint
Bequest of Elisabeth Lotte Franzos, 1983.1